Kentucky enters the 2021 football season with confidence. It has a spiffy new offense to match a proven defense that brought back several multi-year starters.
But, will the wheels (and the Will) actually spin the right direction for UK’s passing game? Can holes on defense be filled quickly and sturdily enough to keep the Cats shored up on that side of the ball? Could the ongoing pandemic sideline dozens of players midway through the year?
Let’s play pessimist and dive into those concerns, and more (Be sure not to miss our accompanying story directed toward the optimist).
1. Is Will Levis for real?
On the optimistic side of this coin, I posited that quarterback Will Levis is a “star,” at least in the sense of growing into a name people know, albeit not for his football acumen. I believe that. But it’s also fair to have concerns about the guy who couldn’t beat out Sean Clifford, considered the No. 88 starting quarterback in the country by Pro Football Focus entering 2021. Accuracy was an oft-cited issue while he was at Penn State that coaches contend has improved, but there’s a difference between making completions in intrasquad competition and trying to make ‘em against Georgia. If Levis isn’t showing up in games as he did in practice, how quickly will the staff be willing to make a switch?
2. Defensive tackle
Anwar Stewart has suggested the defensive tackle spot, at least going into the season, will have more of a mixed rotation than a firm starter. Left to interpretation, one could make the leap that none of the primary players vying for that role — senior Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald, sophomore Isaiah Gibson and Octavious Oxendine — are complete enough players, at this point, for the staff to feel comfortable installing any as the starter. That’s subject to change, of course, based on performance once the games start, but given that this unit as a whole is thin on experience outside of its named starters, nose guard Marquan McCall and defensive end Josh Paschal, it’d be nice to have a better idea of how this position fits into the mix at the top.
3. Depth on defense
On the subject of experience, Kentucky lacks it on the defensive line but at least has talent in the trenches — most of it stemming from a crop of four-star recruits signed in 2020 — about which the staff is excited. It’s even greener in the linebacking corps, which after multi-year starter DeAndre Sqaure (weakside linebacker) and multi-year contributor Jordan Wright (Jack/outside linebacker), doesn’t exactly have its starting lineup assembled, let alone an overflow of bodies ready to throw out to relieve them. UK brought in three linebackers via the transfer portal to help alleviate this issue, but of them only Jacquez Jones — a starter at Ole Miss who’s missed a chunk of camp due to an undisclosed injury — appears to be in line to contribute right away. The secondary is full of talented bodies, but at least three of them could miss time due to a legal matter, so that bears keeping in mind, too.
4. No pass rush?
Josh Allen was a one-of-a-kind force for Kentucky who vaulted it into a pass-rushing behemoth, but UK the season following Allen’s departure was able to still produce pressure (and sacks) at a high level. Not in 2020: UK tumbled down the ranks, finishing 113th nationally in total sacks. “To say that we’re gonna have this thing flipped immediately and get three-plus sacks per game, I can’t say that,” Brad White said near the end of fall camp. “We’ll see how it goes. It has that feel back from ‘19 after we lost Josh. It’s gonna have to come from some different angles.” One would like to think UK can only go up in 2021, but it has to prove it — and stay healthy up front.
Had to know this one was coming, right? With the Delta variant wreaking havoc on communities across the country, and no mandate requiring a vaccine or proof of negative COVID-19 test expected in effect for attending football games, Kroger Field on seven occasions this fall will run the risk of hosting a super-spreader event. Fans who attend will have chosen to accept that risk, so it is what it is. As for the players, there’s been no indication from Mark Stoops that his team has reached the vaccination threshold put forth by the SEC (85 percent) in order for a program to stop regularly testing its players, putting the Wildcats at greater risk of a forfeit (by virtue of possibly not having enough players available due to quarantine) than some of their SEC cohorts. Those are probably unlikely, but you never know. It’s also impossible to predict the path of the pandemic as we progress through year two of its presence.
UK season opener
Louisiana Monroe at Kentucky
When: Noon Saturday
TV: SEC Network